“There’s really not much to know about me,” Dakota Johnson shyly suggests in the first official trailer of 50 Shades of Grey, “I mean… look at me.”
Of course, Christian Grey is looking. But what is he seeing when he looks at the onscreen adaptation of the literary character Anastasia Steele? Not a girl whose eyes are too far apart and too large for her head. Not a girl built for sneakers and sweatshirts, as the book suggests. Certainly not a girl who is exceptional in her plainness, justifiably fixated on her own normalcy. And not the empty, standard template upon which millions of women can quietly project their own likeness within a collective imaginary space so as to allow the indulgence of deep seeded sexual fantasy.
No. Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia has quite a disarming pair of eyes. Not to mention the kind of flower blossom lips one might expect to find on a fetishistic cartoon character and a smattering of soft nose freckles that seem each carefully placed on fair skin by an artist expressing love.
This is only standard fare in Hollywood, really. There exists somewhere an unstated rule that female movie characters can not be given affectionate, romantic, sensual attention unless their physical being warrants it. At best, any object of affection in a film needs to be at least one ponytail drop and hair shake away from transforming into a stunning vixen before any man can make even the slightest move. This tradition is one of the ways in which mainstream film transplants destructive ideas into the minds and egos of America’s women.
It is not the only way. And it is not the worst way.
The MPAA lives in fear of the dick. This singular trade association has near total control over the presence of onscreen penis within the movie industry, but that doesn’t mean they’re not constantly in fear and ready to swing their ratings whip any time one lifts its head.
We know the MPAA is very casual and soft in the definition of their standards. However, if they have one fixed, reliable rule it is the one which states that a film can not display an erect penis and receive anything less than an NC-17 Rating. For those unfamiliar, an NC-17 rating all but assures financial failure for a film, as most theaters in America will immediately refuse to participate in showing said film. This is why when we think of films that do display a penis, the most immediate examples are always flaccid and frequently comedic. The penis, one of two human organs most vital for sexual intercourse, can not be shown as an instrument of sex or sexual intent. The fixation is so complete that, after negative audience feedback from the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America, the MPAA instituted a rating justification of “Male Nudity,” a category completely separate from “Nudity,” freely rendering the male body to be of different value from the female body.
The MPAA is very awkwardly protective of this standard. Consider 2011’s addiction drama Shame, which fought against the NC-17 rating under the justification that the film displayed too much of Michael Fassbender’s penis and not enough female nudity (NewsRecord.Org).
Or consider my personal favorite film of 2012: The Sessions. The story of polio survivor and iron lung patient Mark O’Brian’s attempt to experience sex is one of the most poetic, stirring, and sincere sexual conquests in the history of film. It is, in my opinion, the sort of sexual attitude we can only hope that children grow up to adopt. And yet, as Indiewire observed that year, writer/director Ben Lewin fretted over the decision as to whether to include star John Hawkes’ nudity (an erect penis would earn the dreadful rating and a flaccid penis, according to Lewin, would be pointless to the narrative). Ultimately, Lewin elected not to display Hawkes’ nudity, choosing instead to frame him almost exclusively from the chest up. Therefore, because of the MPAA standard, the character seeking sexual contact could not be displayed as a biological sex object, but Helen Hunt’s sex surrogate character, for whom the exchange was less sex and more business, is naked and on display for nearly half of her screen time.
This is not just one regulating agency’s standard any more. Now, it’s the dangerous standard of the American film industry.
Nearly every camera in every sex scene adopts the perspective of a heterosexual male, diverting the gaze from the scary scary penis like a homophobe in a locker room, and fixating on the sexually framed and exceptionally attractive figure of the female counterpart. Consider the message semi-consciously and subconsciously communicated to female viewers; the female body always the sexual instrument, the male always the shrouded player.
The 50 Shades of Grey trilogy inhabits a unique space in the landscape of pop and modern culture. Unlike any other cultural artifact in America, The 50 Shades books are a widespread, mainstream work of exposed and embraced sexual desire that is almost wholly female in its function (centralized by a female character, penned by a female writer, cherished by countless female readers). Though E.L. James’ standard-to-poor writing makes it easy to push back against this popularity, it would benefit us all to concede that a large part of this backlash is driven by the social discomfort of the breakout of a purely sexual, strictly female fantasy work. To that measure, the film adaptation had an inherent cultural obligation and even before the release of the film, it is evident that it has failed this obligation.
When it was announced that Jamie Dornan’s penis would not be on display in 50 Shades of Grey (Eonline), reports suggested that it was a personal decision of the actor and not a product of MPAA regulation. However, it is a decision whose repercussions exist within the culture created by the MPAA’s iron-fisted and stupid standard. To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest Dornan should be forced to hang dong. But it probably should have been listed early as a requirement of the role given the purpose of the story. (One can be sure that there have been countless role requirements listed for female roles asking the equivalent.)
One doesn’t have to see the sexual appeal of the weak and submissive damsel-in-bondage-and-distress storyline to understand the need for equal sexual value. There is also no need to pretend that the standard penis itself is a pleasant or arousing thing to look at. This isn’t about capitalizing on the sexiness of the story, but responsibly articulating the sex and the value shared by its participants, regardless of the form the activity takes. While the movie’s story will preserve its sadomasochistic structure and details, the heroine will be more physically attractive (and hence, more deserving of sexual attention by the common movie standard) and the visual perspective of the movie will be driven by attention mimicking that of a heterosexual male– the framed focus on Anastasia’s body, the camera most often pointed at her participation as the sexual object put into use by Christian Grey. 50 Shades of Grey has a ready-made audience and most of them likely will not notice the message, but the message will be communicated.
Regulation is important because art is important. And powerful. Art instructs and informs citizens in ways that result in standards of cultural behavior. This, I believe, is more true of movies than any other art form.
The MPAA’s fear of male genitalia has led to a dangerous subliminal message being continually communicated by the film industry, a message that has long suggested that men hold greater value in the exchange of sex, the sort of communication that might inform a culture in which many (male and female) quietly feel as if sex is something owed to a man rather than a mutual contract of pleasure. And now, because of 50 Shades of Grey’s misstep, a new message is being communicated, suggesting that women are not even allowed to sexually fantasize without men approving the terms.